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A Hard Future For Traditional Christianity

Exit polling shows that Ireland has voted in a landslide — 68 percent to 32 percent [1]— to change the constitution to legalize abortion. Among 18 to 24 year olds, the pro-abortion vote was 87 percent. Even rural Ireland, which was expected to be a bastion of anti-repeal sentiment, came in at 60 percent for repealing the abortion ban.

So much for Catholic Ireland. The Rubicon has been crossed. The young Dublin protester in the photo above, whose sign says that the desires of whores (“hoes”) are more important than the right to life of the unborn, has prevailed. Thus, from the Catholic commenter Sohrab Ahmari:

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Today, The Benedict Option [4] seems radical and alarmist to a lot of Christians. By 2020, it’s going to seem like plain common sense.

Don’t misread me here. There will still be Catholics in Ireland after abortion is legal. The point is that the shift in public consciousness that made it possible for the Irish to accept legal abortion is part of a massive de-Christianization (or re-paganization) of the West.


The main focus of my work in the last few years has been to shake traditional Christians out of our collective torpor in the face of this challenge. Part of that torpor involves believing that politics are sufficient to deal with the problem. This is going to sound strange to non-Christians, or to those who identify as Christians, but who are not involved in church, but it’s true: there are more than a few conservative Christians who still believe that most Americans are pretty much on their side. To them, it can’t be true that America is post-Christian, therefore it isn’t true.

So they don’t see the tsunamis coming.

For example, a reader tips me off to a new set of numbers from Pew: a study comparing and contrasting the way urban, suburban, and rural people think about a variety of issues.  [5] Here’s one result that struck the reader (and me):

Notice that even a comfortable majority (58 percent) of rural residents think same-sex marriage is good for society. These numbers shouldn’t surprise anybody who has been paying attention. I bring them up, though, in another of my routine attempts to convince my fellow conservative Christians that we are going to face a much more difficult future on the religious liberty front than our leaders are telling us, and that many of us want to hear.

“Religious liberty” is not just freedom to believe and freedom to worship. Nobody who understands the issues believes that there will be a serious threat to freedom to worship, or freedom to affirm one’s religious beliefs. The threat to religious liberty comes in the exercise of religious beliefs outside of one’s house of worship. I wrote here recently [6] about how the City of Philadelphia is attempting to prevent Catholic Social Services from placing foster children because, in accordance with Catholic teaching, the agency refuses to place foster kids with same-sex couples. Even if you think CSS is in the wrong here, you have to recognize that the state is exacting a cost to Christians for adhering to their religious beliefs regarding homosexuality.

This is going to be increasingly common. Everybody knows that. The clash between gay rights and traditional Christianity (as well as Orthodox Judaism and Islam) is going to grow fiercer. It is the main event in religious liberty challenges now and into the foreseeable future. In an extremely prescient 2006 article on gay marriage and religious liberty [7], Maggie Gallagher interviewed Anthony Picarello, at the time the president and general counsel of the Becket Fund, a public interest legal organization advocating for clients in religious liberty cases. He said:

Just how serious are the coming conflicts over religious liberty stemming from gay marriage?

“The impact will be severe and pervasive,” Picarello says flatly. “This is going to affect every aspect of church-state relations.” Recent years, he predicts, will be looked back on as a time of relative peace between church and state, one where people had the luxury of litigating cases about things like the Ten Commandments in courthouses. In times of relative peace, says Picarello, people don’t even notice that “the church is surrounded on all sides by the state; that church and state butt up against each other. The boundaries are usually peaceful, so it’s easy sometimes to forget they are there. But because marriage affects just about every area of the law, gay marriage is going to create a point of conflict at every point around the perimeter.”

We’ve been living through that. It’s going to get harsher.

Traditional Christians had better understand that the vise is going to be squeezing us much tighter. Look at the numbers in the Pew study above. The Silent Generation will be gone in the next two decades. Assuming that nobody changes his mind, that will leave rural Boomers and Xers as the only generational and geographical demographic groups who believe that same-sex marriage is not good for society.

The numbers sympathetic to trads will be even smaller if Boomers and Xers who are negative on gay marriage today change their mind, as has been the trend over the past decade. How many people do you think are going from having been pro-SSM to anti-SSM? If any, the number has not been meaningful. The trend towards accepting gay marriage is overwhelming and irreversible for the foreseeable future.

One might have thought that having won the right to marry, and the culture war in general, that gay rights supporters would be magnanimous in victory, and leave religious people alone to live out our sad, limited beliefs, until we all just fade away. That was never a possibility. Activist groups depend on keeping fervor against enemies stoked. As long as there is any resistance anywhere, gay activists and liberal fellow travelers will be attacking in court and in other forums. This is obvious.

Here’s the thing: they will have the public on their side. They already do — see the Pew numbers above, especially the overwhelming numbers in the youngest generational cohort. Among the Millennials, an average of 68 percent think same-sex marriage is a good thing for society. Those numbers are not going to shrink. If they move at all, it will be to expand. And there is no reason at all to believe the numbers for the generation following the Millennials will be anything but bigger.

So, you tell me: how do you protect the right of traditional Christians to live by a conviction that a strong majority of Americans believe is bad for society? 

You don’t. The Supreme Court’s Bob Jones ruling gives the IRS the right to take away a religious institution’s tax-exempt status if the government has a compelling public interest to do so, e.g., fighting racial discrimination. If you don’t think that’s going to happen to Christian educational institutions in the next few years, you’re dreaming.

Will it be applied to churches too? That seems far less likely, but by no means unthinkable as America secularizes. We are moving very quickly into a country where people don’t understand what it means to be traditionally religious. Consider:

The Nones are rising as a percentage of the population. [8] Most of them consider themselves to be spiritual, but not religious — and aren’t looking to affiliate themselves with any particular church or tradition. And Millennials who still identify with particular religious traditions are much more pro-gay (read: anti-traditional) than older Christians. Catholic Millennials overwhelmingly accept homosexuality and favor gay marriage. [9] Among Evangelicals polled last year by Pew [10], a slight majority said that homosexuality should be accepted by society, and 45 percent favored same-sex marriage.

Why is this important? Because the American public is becoming less religious, and those who adhere to religion are becoming less conservative, especially on the issue — homosexuality — where the religious liberties of traditionalist Christians will be most tested. What conservative Catholics, Evangelicals, and other Christians believe will not only not be shared by most Americans (even most American Christians!), it will also seem to them like nothing more than mindless hatred.

Do you really think that America is going to protect the rights of bigots to practice their hatred, either under law or in custom? Especially when those so-called bigots oppose the holiest things in the religion of secular liberalism: sexual autonomy, diversity, egalitarianism?

Many of you cannot figure out why homosexuality (and sexuality in general) is such a big deal to us traditionalists. There is the fact that it is clearly condemned in Biblical teaching. Plus, that condemnation is not arbitrary at all, but emerges out of the Judeo-Christian conception of what it means to be a human being, and of the right ordering of the cosmos. As I tried to explain in The Benedict Option [4], we are not now seeing the embrace of sexual autonomy — including abortion rights and gay rights — and their affirmation as good things because of the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles first LP. [11] These things are no aberration, but rather the logical fulfillment of a philosophical and theological turn made centuries ago. A remnant of the Christian faith held these things in check, but not that restraint has almost entirely evaporated.

We have severed the Christian faith from our body politic — in the sense that Western people no longer believe that traditional Christianity should have anything to do with the way we order public life — and nearly severed the Christian faith from the body, period. By that I mean that people who call themselves Christians increasingly disbelieve that their faith obliges them to live by a certain corporal disciplines, sexual and otherwise.

This is something radically new in the history of Christianity, this disincarnationalism. Christians don’t see that, though. They don’t see how difficult it will be to hold on to the liberating teachings of the Bible regarding sexuality, in this repaganized West. And they see no better than anybody else what this repaganization is likely to mean for the body and those who live in them.

What kind of world did Christian sexual ethics challenge? Here’s a passage from a New York Review of Books review essay by Peter Brown [12], one of the greatest living historians of late antiquity. He talks about how Christianity opposed Roman mores most powerfully in its rejection of the widespread sexual exploitation of slaves and women:

From Saint Paul onward, the great issues of sex and freedom were brought together in Christian circles like the enriched ore of an atomic device. For Paul, porneia—fornication—meant a lot more than premarital fooling around. It was a brooding metonym, “enriched” by an entire spectrum of associations. It stood for mankind’s rebellion against God. And this primal rebellion was shown most clearly in the topsy-turvy sexual freedom ascribed first by Jews and then by Christians to the non-Christian world.

But then, what was true freedom? Freedom also was a mighty metonym, of which the freedom to decide one’s sexual fate was only one, highly “enriched” part. Above all, it meant “freedom” from “the world.” And by “the world” Christians meant, bluntly, the Roman society of their own times, where unfreedom was shown in its darkest light by the trading and sexual abuse of unfree bodies. It no longer mattered, to Christians, with whose bodies, from which social categories, and in what manner sex might happen. From Paul onward, for Christians, there was right sex—sex between spouses for the production of children; wrong sex—sex outside marriage; and abhorrent sex—sex between same-sex partners. Wrong sex of any kind was a sin. And a sin was a sin. It was not a social faux pas, deemed an outrage in one situation and accepted in another.

Seldom has so great a simplification been imposed on a complex society. The unexpected victory of Christian norms in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries was so thorough that any alternative ordering of moral frontiers within a society became unthinkable. The intricacies of a status-based morality still require patient reconstruction by modern historians of Rome, like the bones of some flamboyant creature of the Jurassic age. The Christian victory was one that caused a chasm to open up between ourselves and the ancient world.

Brown’s general point here — and in his own work — is that Christianity radically restructured the way Greco-Roman society thought about sex and the body. Now that we are leaving Christianity, the old ways are returning. You may think that a good thing. But Christians who don’t apostatize on these teachings for the sake of fitting into the world had better, in Sohrab Ahmari’s words, start thinking of the West as pagan territory, and had better get clear in their minds the steep, rocky, narrow road opening out in front of us, our children, and our children’s children.


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157 Comments (Open | Close)

157 Comments To "A Hard Future For Traditional Christianity"

#1 Comment By The Man with a Name On June 1, 2018 @ 12:41 pm

Just common. In general circulation. That’s why I gave various examples from different kinds of sources with different political orientations. “Vulnerable” is a quite common word — number 2,980 on the list of most common words in current use, according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English. (The average speaker of English knows about 35,000 words.)

“Vulnerable” is a word that I typically don’t use outside the context of physical combat situations. I guess the political use of it just rubs me the wrong way, so nevermind.

Well, it’s not just you, but since about 130 million Americans voted in 2016, over 60 million for each of the two major parties, it seems like a lot of people think there are significant choices to be made — no doubt in part, perhaps principally, on ethical grounds.

I agree with that part, if only in the abstract.

Not sure where you’re getting all this. I think you’ve misunderstood the larger debate pretty thoroughly. Nobody I know of says that the Irish were somehow “automatically” driven to vote a certain way because of their views of the Catholic Church, or that the Church is currently, at this moment, abusing or failing to protect people in the same ways it’s been guilty of in the past. The claim is that the Church once had more of an ability to persuade Irish citizens to its views than it does today. It was more highly respected and the arguments of its leaders were taken more seriously. That’s what people mean by “moral authority” — not that the morality inheres in the people in question, but that we are naturally disposed to regard some people as more likely to be speaking with moral insight than others, even if that doesn’t absolutely mean they’re right.

What sort of person assumes that any particular person or institution should be “regard[ed as] more likely to be speaking with moral insight” in the first place? Such a manner of thinking is monumentally wrongheaded. I also don’t see how the position of not “taking the arguments of [the RCC’s] leaders more seriously” doesn’t amount to a collective ad hominem attack. (“That particular institution is/was guilty of scandal here in the past. Never mind them.”)

You must yourself have had the personal experience of thinking more highly of some people you know than you do of others, and taking some people’s opinions more seriously than those of others — including, at times, their opinions about what the ethically best course of action would be in cases where that’s not obvious.

No, I can’t say that I have. I admire many people, but I wouldn’t be surprised, let alone shocked, if any of them turned out to be guilty of scandal.

The claim is further that the Church’s failures and abuses over the past couple of generations, i.e. “within living memory” or close to it, has lowered it and its leaders in the estimation of Irish citizens, to the point that political strategists and consultants for the anti-repeal (i.e. anti-abortion) side in the recent referendum concluded that having Catholic bishops speak out publicly against repeal would actually harm the cause.

I don’t see how that follows. Why should the fact that something is “in living memory” affect an argument? The time at which something happened does not affect the position of an ethic. Furthermore, if the anti-abortion side has such a low opinion of their audience’s intelligence, then that says a lot about them.

The common way of distilling such a phenomenon into a single phrase is to describe it as a loss of moral authority.

No such phenomenon could exist among any sensible population.

It’s not that anything the Church has done proves the current bishops wrong on the issue at hand; it’s that many people who once would have said, “Well, if Bishop McSweeney says it’s wrong, it probably is,” would now not have that reaction and some might even have close to the opposite.

Why would anyone assume that if a bishop said something, then it’s automatically correct?

That may violate your sense of rationality, but that’s how people are; they follow leaders and institutions, or don’t, depending on how high an opinion they have them.

My sense of rationality? Are you trying to imply that I’m living in some sort of Twilight Zone-ish world where millions of people at a time more or less entirely base ethics on “high opinion[s]” they have of the people or institutions who spout them rather than on the ethics themselves? Such a position is so at odds with anything resembling sense that it boggles the mind. Oxfam recently turned out to be guilty of massively covered-up sexual abuse (and I don’t agree with a lot of their anti-Israel positions), but I don’t think that delegitimizes them as a potential source of ethics.

But it’s not “automatic” and not even unintelligent: we all take in a wide variety of inputs and weigh a variety of considerations when making decisions, especially on big public questions.

Of course there are, but I wouldn’t take into account past scandals (“in living memory” or not) when considering the ethical positions of those who hold them.

More or less my position too.


#2 Comment By Jefferson Smith On June 1, 2018 @ 6:07 pm

@The Man with a Name:

It’s difficult to answer you, because you talk like someone who’s just arrived from Mars and has no idea how Earthlings actually think. It’s very common for people to regard some people and some institutions as more likely to speak from moral insight or to hold “the moral high ground” than others. That’s why people looking for guidance with life’s most difficult questions are more likely to go to their priests or pastors than to the guy down at the used-car lot, for instance.

I also don’t see how the position of not “taking the arguments of [the RCC’s] leaders more seriously” doesn’t amount to a collective ad hominem attack. (“That particular institution is/was guilty of scandal here in the past. Never mind them.”)

Well, you’re right — it is a kind of ad hominem. People who defend it would say: Look, the average person doesn’t have endless time to devote to sustained, detailed inquiries into ethics. Life is not a graduate seminar. People have real-life decisions they need to make, particularly when there’s a vote pending, and for that purpose they need shortcuts, signposts, relatively simple heuristics. The massive failure of a given institution to conduct its affairs ethically gives us one simple shortcut: Don’t trust that institution’s leaders, or at least don’t rely on them as fully and unthinkingly as you might have done in the past. This may or may not be perfectly fair, but life isn’t perfectly fair.

What you seem to be resisting is the extent to which people at large are willing to give their “proxies” to others. Year ago, when I was voting in Illinois, I was asked to vote on whether or not to “retain” a long list of local judges. Obviously, I had no personal knowledge of any of these judges or how capable they were. So I found a group whose political and legal values seemed to closely resemble my own, and I let them “vet” the judges for me. Basically, I gave them my proxy. They published a list of which judges should be retained, and I voted according to that list. Most voters do something like this, starting with which party loyalties they follow (i.e., without really looking closely at the candidates, they’ll generally vote for the Republican / Democrat unless there’s some obvious reason not to). It’s rough and inexact, and it may not satisfy your rigorous standards, but it’s what citizens in an actual society, with actual jobs and families and other commitments they need to attend to, are going to do in order to save themselves time. Their calculation will be that, yes, once in a while this approach will lead me to vote for the wrong person (or the wrong position in a referendum), but usually it won’t, so it’s good enough to serve the purpose. We just can’t expect perfection in this life.

#3 Comment By The Man with a Name On June 2, 2018 @ 3:28 pm

I’m not from Mars. I’m operating by the system of ethics and logic that I’ve always known, and have always assumed the average person has known.

People who defend it would say: Look, the average person doesn’t have endless time to devote to sustained, detailed inquiries into ethics. Life is not a graduate seminar. People have real-life decisions they need to make, particularly when there’s a vote pending, and for that purpose they need shortcuts, signposts, relatively simple heuristics.

What I’m talking about doesn’t constitute the sort of thing that one has to go to a graduate seminar to understand. All one has to do is draw ethical conclusions on the basis of the ethics themselves, not those who claim them. That does not strike me as something that one needs a PhD for.

I guess we’re just at an epistemological impasse.

#4 Comment By The Man with a Name On June 2, 2018 @ 4:31 pm

(For the record, I don’t think that you actually think I’m from Mars. I just felt it was a good opening sentence.)

#5 Comment By Jefferson Smith On June 3, 2018 @ 6:42 am

(For the record, I don’t think that you actually think I’m from Mars. I just felt it was a good opening sentence.)

Never mind the Mars thing, that didn’t come out right. Here’s a better one: John Donne said that “No man is an island,” but you seem to come closer than most. My experience has been that even people who take pride in thinking for themselves (me, for instance) also are aware of finding the advice and guidance of others very helpful at times.

It’s true, though, that probably fewer people today take their cues from the kinds of people who were once seen as “moral authorities.” The Pew Research Center’s polls seem to bear that out:


Catholics, notably, are less likely to turn for guidance to priests or to the pope nowadays. Even these reduced numbers, though, still represent millions of people consulting such (presumed) authorities — and if they don’t, that’s to some degree because of the other phenomenon you’re criticizing, i.e. that they see those old sources of guidance as discredited due to the past failures of the institution they’re part of. I don’t doubt that was one factor in the Irish vote.

#6 Comment By Jefferson Smith On June 3, 2018 @ 12:25 pm

On further thought, @Man with a Name, I should add that I don’t think the Catholic scandals were a big factor in the Irish vote. That’s because, first, abortion is an old and familiar issue that people have had a long time to form their views about, not some new question they’ve never thought through before; and second, because the reduction of whatever moral “authority” or leadership the Catholic church once exercised is not mainly due to scandals but to larger developments, like modernization and secularization, that have been underway for generations now. Certainly, with the vote having been so lopsided, it probably made no difference to the outcome that the Catholic Church has been in somewhat bad odor in Ireland in recent years. So in that sense you’re right that it’s kind of peculiar if people really were influenced by that fact on this particular question. Still, it wouldn’t surprise me if some were and it was at least a minor factor.

#7 Comment By The Man with a Name On June 6, 2018 @ 6:39 pm

@Jefferson Smith:

(I know this is over a week old, sorry.)

Thanks for replying. I’ll just finish by saying that I can’t comprehend the concept of “moral authority” as something that any person or institution possesses as existing in any way, in anybody’s mind. Again, it’s an epistemological impasse.